Friday, June 29, 2007

"The Texas Transportation Commission, for the first time took a step back from its push toward private tollways."

State backs off from Dallas-area private tollway deal

4-1 vote on transportation commission only second split decision in 90 years.

June 29, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Texas Transportation Commission, with the conspicuous presence in the front row of state Sen. Florence Shapiro, on Thursday for the first time took a step back from its push toward private tollways.

The commission voted to let the North Texas Tollway Authority build and operate the Texas 121 turnpike in Collin County, provided the agency and Dallas transportation planners can hammer out final details within 60 days. And then, 35 days after that, the agency will have to hand over a promised $3.33 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation.

If any of that fails to occur on time, the Transportation Department probably will return to Plan A, a long-term lease with a partnership led by Spanish toll road builder Cintra. The agency had chosen the Cintra partnership this year from among three private competitors after Cintra pledged to pay the state $2.1 billion upfront and about $700 million over 49 years for the right to build the 26-mile road.

After that deal was announced, Shapiro, a Plano Republican, and other Dallas-Fort Worth area legislators pushed hard to give the tollway authority, which is described as a political subdivision of the state, a shot at building the road instead. The tollway authority operates the two tollways in the Metroplex as well as a bridge and tunnel with tolls, and has plans for several other tollways. Its supporters said that profits from Texas 121 should stay in the area rather than going to private stockholders.

Transportation Department officials resisted the change through the spring, arguing that it was unfair and possibly an invitation for a lawsuit to allow a government agency to see a winning private bid and then top it. They also pointed to support of the Cintra deal by the Regional Transportation Council, which makes major transportation decisions for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

But that body of 40 local elected officials voted a few weeks ago in favor of the tollway authority offer, which carried a higher upfront payment than Cintra's bid, money to be used for other area highway projects.

The state commission, despite reservations about loose ends in the tollway authority's offer, followed suit Thursday.

The commission vote was notable for its lack of unanimity. The count was 4-1, with Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso dissenting. Houghton made it clear during the debate that he liked the certainty of Cintra's pending bid.

Longtime Transportation Department officials said it might be only the second time in the agency's 90-year history that commissioners haven't voted unanimously on an agenda item.

The other split vote, in 1996, also involved a toll road, the Camino Colombia turnpike near Laredo.

That road was built by investors and then later became a state road after the private venture failed.; 445-3698

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